Model Kate Keown portraying Beatrice Cenci. 1968.

The Spirit of Beatrice Cenci - A Tale of Terrible Injustice in Ancient Rome

(Read the article on one page)

Just a stone’s throw away from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City is the Ponte Sant’Angelo. Today, this bridge is one of the famous tourist attractions in the city of Rome. Yet, this bridge hides a dark secret that few who walk upon it would realize.

For several centuries the Ponte Sant’Angelo was one of the sites of choice for public executions, as well as for the exposure of the bodies of the executed, by the papacy. According to tour guides in the city, one of the victims of papal justice still haunts the Ponte Sant’Angelo today, wandering around the bridge with her severed head. This is said to be the spirit of Beatrice Cenci, legendary figure to the people of Rome.

A portrait of Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni.

A portrait of Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni. Public Domain

The History and Legend of Cenci

Beatrice Cenci was born in 1577 into a rich Italian aristocratic family. Her father, Francesco Cenci was the son of the treasurer general of the Apostolic Chamber. A brutal man, Francesco is said to have abused his first wife, Ersilia Santa Croce, mistreated his sons, and raped Beatrice on multiple occasions. With his great wealth, Francesco was also able to indulge in his violence and lust outside his family with impunity, thus earning him the hatred of the people of Rome. Eventually, his criminal actions (not the ones inflicted on his family though) landed him in trouble with the papal authorities. Yet, as Francesco was a nobleman, and a wealthy one at that, he was treated leniently, and was merely fined and imprisoned for several months.

While Francesco was in prison, his children attempted to escape from his tyranny. Beatrice’s older sister, Antonina, succeeded in her petition to the pope requesting either to be allowed to marry without her father’s consent or to join a convent. The pope consented with the former, and Francesco was forced to pay a hefty dowry when he was freed from prison. It was said Francesco was extremely angry at this, and fearing that Beatrice might pull off the same trick, Francesco decided to move her. He sent Beatrice, his second wife Lucrezia, and his youngest son Bernardo to the family’s country castle at La Petrella del Salto which is situated in the Abruzzi Mountains to the northeast of Rome.

The account varies, and according to other sources, Beatrice reported her father’s domestic violence to the authorities. The authorities, however, did not take any action, and when Francesco discovered his daughter’s plea for help, he sent her to La Petrella del Salto.

MORE

In the seclusion country castle, and away from the hustle and bustle of Rome, Francesco grew even bolder in his perversities, and the two women suffered in silence. In desperation, Beatrice wrote to her brother, Giacomo (who had cut ties with his father and ran away) for help. This was found out by her father, who punished Beatrice by whipping her mercilessly. It is thought that Beatrice decided the only way to escape was to take justice into her own hands and murder her father.

Beatrice was enlisted the help of two of the castle’s servants in her murder plot. One of them was a bribed servant, while the other was her secret lover. On the night of the murder, Beatrice drugged Francesco’s wine, and when he was fast asleep, she ordered the servants to strike his head. After that, they threw him off the balcony in an attempt to make it look like an accident. As no one believed that Francesco’s death was an accident, Beatrice was soon caught and imprisoned.

While it was unclear whether Lucrezia, and brothers Bernardo and Giacomo were also Beatrice’s partners in crime, they were also suspected of murdering Francesco. The bribed servant attempted to escape, only to be killed by a cousin of the Cencis. Beatrice’s secret lover was imprisoned, and tortured, though he died without telling anything. Having been tortured on the rack, the four Cencis confessed to the crime, were implicated for the murder of Francesco Cenci, and sentenced to death.    

Painting, The Imprisonment of Beatrice Cenci, based on the legend. 19th century.
Painting, The Imprisonment of Beatrice Cenci, based on the legend. 19 th century. Public Domain

The people of Rome are said to have protested against the sentence, and obtained a short postponement of the execution. Pope Clement VIII, however, denied mercy, arguing that it would become a precedent for pardoning the crime of patricide.

Comments

Wow, such an interesting read. I got to visit the Ponte Sant'Angelo last year, but wasn't aware of this dark history of it. Keep up with these kinds of articles, Ancient Origins.

Such a tragic story that many innocent people have suffered throughout history. Domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse are crimes that have been perpetrated throughout history and sadly continue to out present times. It is truly heartbreaking to learn the details of how these abused victims tried to get the help they needed over and over again, but they were not able to get the aid necessary to stop their abuse. It's not surprising that Beatrice felt that her father's death was the only way to escape from her despotic father and his abuse. Even with all the laws and agencies society has in place today, abuse victims still fall through the cracks of the system. After repeated attempts to try to save themselves from abuse and the system failing them, abuse victims today sometimes find themselves in Beatrice's shoes and thinking that the death of their abuser is the only means to end the abuse. We must work harder to stop domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse of innocent people so we don't end up with more future Beatrice's. Rest in peace Beatrice!

Poor baby, she looks like she's only 12 or 13. Raped and murdered before she even had a chance to live.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Ancient Technology

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article